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The COVID-19 pandemic explained  

With its controversial genesis and limited adverse impact in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019, the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic is, in less than half a year, ravaging the entire planet with its unprecedented velocity and spread of toxicity.

Transformed into a global pandemic in no time, COVID-19 is testing the ultra-modern world of the 21st century to its very limit. Whatever the level of development and ideological orientation, no country seems to be in a position to escape from its rampant onslaught. Not only people are dying in droves but also livelihoods are being tarnished in a dramatic twist where a status of sky high prosperity suddenly disintegrates into a catastrophic situation of poverty and vulnerability. COVID-19 is indeed a monster that devours flesh and much more upending, as it is, the socio-economic order of the post-World War II.   

The sheer magnitude of loss is staggering in terms of both lives and livelihoods. Since the virus emerged at the end of 2019, more than eight million people have been globally affected/infected while more than 430,000 deaths have been recorded. The fact that the virus can hibernate in people, for quite some time, with no sign of revelation in an asymptomatic stage, indicates the hard reality that the total number of deaths and infected population can even be much more than what is captured in the official statistics.

While the number of dead and/or affected population is exponentially growing by the day, no one is in a position to offer concrete prediction as to what the totality of the damage would be when the crises comes to an end, if ever it does. Unfortunately, with hundreds of thousands already perished and millions hurting, the problem seems to be so giant-sized while the solutions to date appear to be so inadequate.

The US, with its established might in science, military, and economic considerations, is the hardest hit and continues to suffer with the heaviest toll; about 110,000 people have been killed and greater than 1.9 million have been affected by the end of May, 2020. While the onslaught continues, the death toll in the US surpasses the combined number of Americans who died fighting in Korea and in Vietnam.

Based on tentative estimates made regarding the damage on the economic front, the grim statistics, with more than 40 million people already rendered unemployed, clearly demonstrates the unfortunate reality where the US is registering the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Although it is often declared  that every Tom, Dick and Harry in the world of science is frantically working to find something that can stem the scourge of the virus in one way or another, the possibility of finding  reliable medicine/vaccines seems to be a long way off while expectations and anxiety keep on mounting by the day.

As if the repeat of bad news turns positive to provide solace to the  troubled world,  the kind of cliché often repeated in the media outlets is ‘’To-date, there is no medicine and/or vaccine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus (2019-CoV).’’  The initiatives of team science have to deliver fast enough in a way that ensures the response is equal to or greater than the dynamics of the virus. The long-awaited success in this respect determines the possibility for humanity to come out of the lockdown and bounce back with a renewed sense of normalcy in the post-COVID-19 world.

With the totality of the damage the pandemic unleashes yet to be determined, the immense havoc it causes is still evolving in a state of fluidity. In a situation where neither the possible cause nor the cure is concretely defined, humanity has yet to figure out how to understand the specific nature and the full impact of the ‘beast’ while grappling with its adverse consequences.

There is rising curiosity, often expressed with alarm, as to why COVID-19 is hitting so hard and so wide with unimaginable loss of lives and livelihoods in most parts of the world. Sooner or later, this leads to the reflection of the perennial question - why do disasters, in various forms and scale of destruction, breakout and create havoc threatening the very survival of humanity?

Addressing the question as to why disasters strike the way they do, Anders Wijkman and Lloyd Timberlake have contributed to the understanding of the causes, and to some extent the prevention, of conventional disasters in  their ground–breaking work  published in 1984, NATURAL DISASTERS: ACTS OF GOD or ACTS OF MAN?

The key elements of their thesis define the misleading nature of the concept of ‘natural disaster’ although the forces of nature such as earthquakes, cyclones and extreme variations in weather can trigger disasters, highlight the role of environmental degradation, poverty and rapid population growth which turn a natural hazard into a major disaster in many 3rd world countries, and point out the inadequacy of  the usual response to disasters by the rich nations – fast, short-lived emergency assistance, as they believe that most major disasters are “development” gone wrong, putting millions of poor people on the margins of existence and call for a more appropriate response which must include an element of true development – development which reduces rather than increases vulnerability to disasters.

Their thesis provides a useful contribution unpacking the issues and establishing the inherent causes of disasters as a combination of factors including both natural and human agents. However, the contribution covers only the conventional types of disasters under three categories: natural (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, etc.), technological (chemical releases, power outages, natural gas explosions, etc.,) and man-made (terror attacks, race riots, mass shootings, etc.).

However, as a disaster like no other, COVID-19 cannot conveniently fit in any one of the three pillars of conventional disasters although some of the elements may be relevant to consider in a further analysis of COVID-19 and its adverse impacts. In connection with this, it is important to highlight the fact that controversies abound as regards the origin and ultimate cause of the coronavirus.

Some people hold the view that the virus could have been intentionally produced in a laboratory in China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic. Refuting this claim, however, Kristian Andersen, PhD, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, by comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, argues that the virus has originated through natural processes.

While much more knowledge remains to be unearthed about the cause of and hopefully the cure for the deadly virus, the determination of the particularity of COVID-19, as a disaster like no other, can be established based on the key considerations that set it apart from the conventional disasters.

Firstly, the way COVID-19 has been blanketing the globe, spreading like wild fire, is so unique and demonstrates the truly global nature and unlimited impact of the pandemic affecting all countries in a variety of lethal manifestations.

Secondly, the adverse impacts of COVID-19 are limitless not only in terms of massive public health hazards/human life loss but also in terms of unprecedented economic dislocation and destruction leading to the deepest recession and massive unemployment on a global scale. Millions of people are out of work and the production processes have been severely disrupted in almost all countries affected by the pandemic.

Thirdly, there is a palpable fear that induces the notion that COVID-19 can potentially be considered a divider. This is based on the assumption that the truly global nature of the pandemic, affecting all poor and rich nations alike, can weaken the long-established post-World War II compact which was based on strong norms of solidarity and cooperation in which ‘the halves’ are morally and historically obliged to come to the aid of ‘the halve nots’ especially in times of disasters.

However, what is being demonstrated in practice attests to the fact that COVID-19 presents a set of opportunities as much as it may engender risks. It is important to understand the issues in a broader perspective reflecting the nuanced nature of the dynamics of COVID-19.

  • In one sense, although everybody is seriously affected by the tragedy caused by COVID-19, the power of solidarity and mutual cooperation continues to manifest itself in a very strong way.  Caring for one another at community level is observed everywhere with a stronger sense of commitment to fight the impact of the pandemic in a collective effort .The same spirit of renewed cooperation also drives the relationships between counties at international level; rich and poor countries alike are rising to the challenge of helping one another although each and every one are simultaneously enduring the hardest of times due to the continuing onslaught of the pandemic. To overcome the formidable challenges of COVID-19 with increased solidarity bilaterally and multilaterally, the lenders (representing the rich countries) and the borrowers (representing the poor countries) are engaging in a cooperative dialogue to agree on a mechanism that makes it possible to consider cancellation and /or rescheduling the payment of accumulated debts while consideration of concessional terms for future debts are also being discussed as part of the agenda. This underscores the huge potential COVID-19 brings with it, reigniting the positive dynamic for greater equality, fairness and mutual interdependence at all levels.   The fact that ‘kindness is not quarantined ‘due to COVID-19 is indeed too good to be true and goes a long way in allaying the fears of those who consider the advent of the pandemic as an ominous sign of the end of bilateral and multilateral cooperation and international aid. This establishes a strong case for COVID-19 to be considered a connector rather than a divider.   
  • At the same time, however, the differential impacts of COVID-19 on the diversity of the communities seem to bring out the fact in which the pandemic acts as a divider. The statistics for the USA, broken down in terms of race, gender and age, clearly indicates how COVID-19 is differentially impacting the population. The overall figures indicate that communities of colour are more disproportionately affected (including deaths) than the other ethnic groups. Significantly more men, than women, are affected as much as the elderly, especially those with pre-existing illnesses, are more seriously hit than the other age groups. The same trend apparently holds for the rest of the countries affected by COVID-19. It can, therefore, be argued that, through its differential impact on the diverse communities, COVID-19 has exposed and exploited the evil of discrimination and systemic racism in certain situation. Nevertheless, the positive implication of this could even be more profound if the hard realities exposed by the adverse differential impacts of COVID-19 on the communities can lead to a positive policy and practical response that can help reset the post-COVID-19 world with stronger solidarity, equality and fairness.   
  • Fourthly, with the  prospect for reliable treatment/ vaccine recurrently being pushed further down the line, what seems to be winning the day is the old adage - ‘prevention is better than cure.’ Yes, prevention may be considered easier in many cases. However, the prevention package and the recommended specific actions in this case are relatively uncommon, the reason being that the virus manifests itself as Novel Coronavirus. The effective implementation of the package demands iron-clad discipline to ensure flawless demonstration of a kind of special look with a facelift, masks, spotless hygiene, hand washing/sanitization and independent positioning, social distancing representing the three key commandments euphemistically referred to as the preventive ‘holy trinity’. In the absence of proven treatment/ vaccines, there is no other option at the moment can empower people to beat the virus t effectively.

What we need to do, to stay safe, is abundantly clear. Whether we like it or not, our only saving grace depends on the seriousness with which we implement the three commandments set by the preventive ‘holy-trinity’- masks, hand washing/sanitization, and social distancing. This is critically important to protect not only ourselves but also our families, our neighbours and the general public at large. The extent to which we allow our way of life to be reshaped in a manner that ensures optimal implementation of the commandments determines the degree to which we can defeat the virus before it attacks us with its deadly sting. And our new way of life demands, among others, that we all ‘go the distance’ literally and figuratively.  Do we have a choice? Not really, as common sense demands that we always choose life over death. The fact that we cannot afford to let our guard down in these perilous times should spur us to be better than our best. Stay safe!

Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Tenna Mengistu Zewdie